04/13/2012 06:24 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Out in School

During my childhood and young adulthood, gays and lesbians were invisible in my community. But while they were invisible, they certainly were not absent; their presence was just not acknowledged. The behaviors I observed in the adults I loved and looked up to suggested that gays and lesbians were people one whispered about; spoke of in vague, masked terms; or ridiculed, abused, and violated because of who and what they were. The world that formed me and shaped my values did not honor, afford humanity to, or bestow dignity on those who were gay. I grew up in a world where gay, lesbian, and bisexual people were invisible, isolated, powerless, and voiceless. [Larry D. Roper, "The Role of Senior Student Affairs Officers in Supporting LGBT Students: Exploring the Landscape of One's Life," in New Directions for Student Services, fall 2005]

A few years ago, I was doing my doctoral work at Sage College of Albany and began looking for areas to research for my dissertation. Sitting across from my doctoral chair, we explored areas of concern that I wanted to address. One area that came up in the discussion was safeguarding LGBT students. I truly didn't think it was that big of an issue.

In my life I am surrounded by goodhearted people with open minds. They are both straight and gay, and they do not need to be defined by whom they love. It wasn't until I read the National School Climate Survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that I truly understood that there was a problem. Their work opened my eyes to what was really happening around the country. Unfortunately it was, and still is, considered a controversial area.

Sadly, as I delved deeper into the issue of safeguarding LGBT students, I also saw an increase of suicides happening by young adults who were gay or perceived to be gay. The media began covering the issue more and more, which cemented the fact that it was real. In addition, I saw a struggle between politicians who wanted the LGBT community to have equal rights and those politicians who did not. What I originally thought was not a problem became a national issue, and our students are caught in the middle.

Schools do not know how to address this issue because there is pushback from the community, or because people bring their own personal beliefs. There are many teachers and administrators who are trying to address the issue of LGBT bullying, but there are many others who still ignore it. The problem stems from the fact that, although there were always gay kids in school, it is a relatively new phenomenon for so many students to come out while they are in school.

During the '90s, kids began coming out at a younger age. Many people in the LGBT community came out long after they graduated from high school, because high school is not the place to be if you do not "fit in." Many of these kids waited until after they left home because they were concerned that they were going to be disowned and kicked out of their homes. Most were not surrounded by LGBT role models, so they thought coming out was the end of their relationship with their families and friends.

Over the years, and because of high-profile celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge, as well as shows like Will & Grace, all that changed. People began to identify with those in the LGBT community, and kids felt as though they could come out long before their LGBT predecessors.

However, it is still not safe for many young adults who come out. The sad stories about suicide, bullying, and murders based on hate are sad reminders that as far as the LGBT community has come, it still has a long way to go. One of the places where that happens is within our nation's schools. Too often, instead of appreciating diversity and learning from it, students are asked to leave their personal beliefs at the door. That not only doesn't help the issue, but it prevents those students from being prepared for the life outside the school building's entrance.

In an effort to seem accepting, many schools have a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy," whereby students are allowed to be gay, but they just can't "act" gay. There are organizations like GLSEN, It Gets Better, and The Trevor Project that are trying their best to change those policies by offering hope to young LGBT teens and offering curricula and guidance to the schools where those LGBT teens attend.

However, it takes more than organizations to change the tide. It takes individual people who are willing to stand up and say this is a cause worth fighting for, because there are young people around the country who lack the proper support they need and are not meeting their full potential. All students, gay or straight, deserve to reach their full potential.